Valuing the humanities

The Hon. Bob Carr, M.P.

So long as I remain alive and well, I shall continue to feel strongly about prose style, to love the surface of the earth, and to take pleasure in solid objects and scraps of useless information.

Thus speaks George Orwell (1903–1950), one of the best literary critics in English, one of the finest essayists, and ‘the most influential political writer of the twentieth century.’ [1]

He captures in those words some part of the appeal of the humanities: love of the language and its possibilities, attention to all that humanity has achieved or aspired to achieve, and the pursuit of learning for the pleasure of learning.

About 40 percent of the students in this University are enrolled in the humanities and social sciences. I am less comforted by other facts such as the federal government’s $1 billion cut to university funding from 1996 and the impact it is having, the staff to student ratio in the humanities across Australia blowing-out by 22 percent from 1995 to 1998, and full-time academic staff declining by 13 percent in the same period.

A report on this subject prepared in 1998 for the federal government found that:

The funding of Humanities research has been substantially reduced in the 1990s. … The consequences of this situation cannot be allowed to continue without causing a disastrous weakening in Australian Humanities research and research training. [2]

The cuts have removed whole disciplines. I am advised, for example, that three Australian universities have stopped teaching Indonesian; Russian is almost non-existent; and core disciplines—History and English—are in some universities half the size (in terms of teaching establishment) they were 10 years ago.

This might be many things, but the ‘clever country’ it isn’t. Singapore, I understand, is expanding opportunities for generalist education because it knows that helps make a complete nation. Therefore, let me make some arguments in favour of the humanities.

First, we should abandon any notion that the choice is between vocational education and the humanities.

Singapore is expanding opportunities for generalist education because it knows that helps make a complete nation.

Last July I was honoured to open the Macquarie Modern History Teachers’ Conference, and I began by telling these teachers in history from our high schools that what they teach is the most practical study I can think of.

They are teaching students a marketable skill: to collect information, organise that information, present it, assess it, debate it. They’re precisely the skills we require in an information era.

With all the focus on technology, there is in fact a greater need than ever for content, and it is humanists who provide that content. Content is still king. And it is provided by people able to research information, assess it, present it and argue it. The ability to obtain evidence, to arrange it, to weigh it, to argue from it—is a very valuable and marketable skill.

In government I’ve seen a case lost because its proponents haven’t been able to organise their material. They haven’t been able to assess evidence, to present it with one argument coherently following another.

Therefore, the humanities have no apologies to make. They contribute to the national reservoir of skills. That reservoir determines our fate as a nation, our living standards, our security.

The humanities feed a nation’s political IQ. And we ought to be a nation with a high political IQ, we ought to be a people able to assess arguments and make informed decisions.

Does Australia’s story warrant the assumption of black armbands or a celebration of all the nation-building since 1788? Could it be that examining the texts and mounting the arguments, weighing one against the other, enables us to reach the conclusion that our history comprises many stories, many different strands?

Learning this from a serious or scholarly study of history we edge forward to a sense of our nation, a patriotism that is informed. A patriotism that can accommodate both the pain, resistance, survival and pride of Aboriginal Australia, and, at the same time—living side-by-side with it—the success of the nation-building achievement of Australia post-1788.

And, knowing the historical arguments, we can believe things about our nation’s achievements and our nation’s shortcomings. Our patriotism is, in fact, fed by a knowledge of our country’s history.

Recent works on Australian history have helped shape the way we see our nation and the sort of pride we can take in it, the sort of commitments we can make about it.

With all the focus on technology, there is in fact a greater need than ever for content, and it is humanists who provide that content.

John Hirst’s The Sentimental Nation; Geoffrey Bolton’s biography of the first Prime Minister; Henry Reynolds’ latest book, Why weren’t we told? speaking of the whispering in our hearts about ‘dark deeds done in this sunny land’; Andrew Markus’ book Fear and Hatred touching on our experiment with slave labour, that is, imported Pacific Islanders.

Our public reason, our debate, our public reflection produces a sensible and serious patriotism that can accommodate all aspects of our national life. And the humanities in that way and many others feed and sustain and nurture what we can call a political IQ.

These are pragmatic or utilitarian arguments for the humanities.

I speak now of the sheer pleasure of that shock of recognition that comes when we see in writing about a previous age—philosophical, literary or historical—something we recognise in ourselves. The shock of recognition that comes through the humanities: the recognition of our humanity stretching back through the centuries. It comes when you have Chekov say: ‘Any idiot can survive a crisis; it’s the day-to-day living that wears you down.’

Or Ben Jonson, Shakespeare’s contemporary, writing:

What a deal of cold business doth a man mis-spend the better part of his life in!—in scattering compliments, tendering visits, gathering and reporting news, following Feasts and Playes, making a little winter-love in a dark corner.

Ben Jonson, at the end of his life.

And, of course, this shock of recognition we get as we explore and probe the humanities is why Harold Bloom isn’t entirely presumptuous to title his 1999 book Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human. He argues, I think rightly, that up until Shakespeare, the characters on stage were mere ideograms and caricatures.

After Shakespeare, characters on stage breathed with self-awareness, self-criticism, self-contempt, self-knowledge. What we understand in literary terms as the human was born in this outpouring on the Elizabethan stage, the stage that gave us Hamlet, Iago, Falstaff, Rosalind, Lady Macbeth, Cleopatra, a mirror up to our natures.

Thus Noam Chomsky can argue that we will always learn more about human life and human personality from novels than from scientific inquiry.

To me, the writing of another great essayist, Isaiah Berlin—perhaps you could argue an heir to Orwell—illustrates another source of wonder in the humanities: the appeal of ideas, the analysis of ideas, the history of ideas. One critic said ‘to read Berlin is to sit at an unlit window and see the landscape of European thought illuminated by a spectacular display of fireworks.’

The humanities help us assess and debate the ethical implications of new technologies such as biotechnology.

One essay in particular reads to me like intellectual detective work. It’s in the volume that collects some of his works entitled The Crooked Timber of Humanity. And it’s Berlin trying to trace the intellectual origins of twentieth century fascism.

In this detective story, which takes him through the prisons, the palaces, the opera theatres, the gallows of Europe from the time of the French Revolution to our own time, Berlin searches for the origin of what became fascism. His searches lead him to this peculiar figure, Joseph de Maistre (1753–1821), an ambassador and courtier in Savoy who, reeling in horror from the excesses of the French Revolution, drew up a list of enemies that we recognise as the enemies of Hitler and Mussolini, as the people that provided the numbers in the concentration camps of our times.

‘Who was the enemy?’ asks Isaiah Berlin, completing his detective work. Referring to de Maistre’s views, he said: ‘all those that throw dust in the eyes of the people or seek to subvert the appointed order’—that is, the throne and the altar.

De Maistre calls them a sect. These are the disturbers and subverters: Protestants, Jansenists, Deists and atheists, Freemasons and Jews, scientists and democrats, Jacobins, liberals, utilitarians, anti-clericals, egalitarians, materialists, idealists, lawyers, journalists, secular reformers and intellectuals of every breed; all those who appeal to abstract principles, who put faith in individual reason or the individual conscience, believers in individual liberty or the rational organisation of society. These people are a sect, they never sleep, they must be put down, they must be stopped boring from within. [3]

De Maistre reached the view that only an alliance of the throne, of the hangman and of the altar could wind back the excesses of the French Revolution. And in embracing the idea that men can only be hemmed in by the terror of authority, he collected views that were drawn on by the monsters of the twentieth century.

Well, they’re notions familiar to our civilisation beginning in the 1920s, 30s and 40s. They gave rise to all those cattleloads of ‘enemies of the people’ criss-crossing Europe in Stalin’s Russia as well.

Berlin traces these notions, like an intellectual detective, back to Joseph de Maistre and the reaction to the forces unleashed by the French Revolution. We’re reminded as we follow him in this adventure of ideas that Hitler himself said in a moment of great insight ‘I am the revolution against the Revolution’, meaning, of course, the revolutionary ideas unleashed not just in 1917 but in 1789.

The sheer pleasure of this journey through ideas is a large part of the study of the humanities. And here’s another thing the humanities can do for us at this time: they help us assess and debate the ethical implications of the new technologies of the scientific revolutions upon us such as biotechnology.

Shakespeare’s plays are strong enough to survive any scholastic version of competition policy. They’re strong enough to survive comparison with Pulp Fiction.

How do we take the concept of predictive testing for genetic disorders and all that might go with it? Concerns about cloning human beings and modifying genetic information? The idea of socio-biology, that is, reducing humans to their DNA sequence and attributing social and other human problems to genetic causes?

These represent uncharted territory. Where do we look for guidance if it’s not to the philosophers at a university like this, a large part of whose work has been how humankind is to live the ‘good’ life? When have philosophers and their focus on ethical concerns been more relevant than they are with these issues?

Well, that’s something of the case for the humanities. None of this, however, amounts to me defending some sacred canon that I think students of this university must study as carefully as students coming here in the 1940s or in 1900 or in 1870. I’ve got no special anxiety about any departure, for example, from some sacred canon of great books.

Shakespeare’s plays I think are strong enough to survive any scholastic version of competition policy. They can survive study alongside Six Degrees of Separation or American Beauty. They’re strong enough to survive comparison with Pulp Fiction.

His work can be studied because it’s so good, because it’s a feast of language and character, it’s a font of ideas, and yes because it is hard, although not as hard as it used to be. All the movie versions of Shakespeare represent a golden age of Shakespeare study. Here is the opportunity to have a class in high school compare different versions of Macbeth or Hamlet.

It can be more challenging than it ever was when the best we could hope for was being trooped off to see a quasi-amateur production at the Independent Theatre at North Sydney.

Until this year, for example, no Australian adolescents could have seen a performance of Titus Andronicus. The Julie Taymor-Anthony Hopkins film, with its echoes of what is happening today in Zimbabwe, in Kosovo, shows what a huge, eternal work Titus is, what a precursor of all Shakespeare’s subsequent work and what a precursor it is, too, of Beckett and Tarantino.

A great work must delight you and test you. Does George Eliot in Middlemarch do both of these things? Well I’m not sure. And I’m not sure Dickens, Eliot, Bronte and Melville should be mandated for the young in the study of English. We can be bold enough to take some risks with the so-called canon. Take a bold leap over all English nineteenth century literature and arrive straight at the moderns, at Joyce and Woolf, for example, or take a leap over all English nineteenth century literature to create room in the curriculum for the Russians—Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Turgenev—and the French in translation.

Why should the Peloponnesian wars be regarded as a more testing or worthy area of study than the ferocious wars of our last century? Are not Kershaw’s Hitler or Gilbert’s Churchill or Tuchman’s The Guns of August as much worth studying as Thucydides or Josephus or Tacitus? There’s a richer mound of material available, for example, the secret correspondence of Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill. We know more about this time. It contains as many challenges as the wars of the ancient world and, without diminishing the riches of Mediterranean civilisation between Homer and the late Roman empire, there’s a case to be made for modernity.

Allan Bloom’s polemic The Closing of the American Mind, about what is to be taught in universities, now seems I think even more muddled than when it was published in 1987.

As a defender of the humanities, I am worried that some work in the humanities can today be so easily parodied for using an inaccessible language.

But if the humanities in our universities are to be defended, they need to help themselves. And, as a defender of the humanities, I am worried that some of the work in the humanities can today be so easily parodied, parodied for using an inaccessible language, a language that is very remote from the simple prose of George Orwell. We’ve got to get rid of this mad notion that ‘incomprehensibility is a sign of greatness.’ [4]

Nowhere was this case better made than in Alan Sokal’s parody of postmodernism in the journal Social Text in 1996. Here is a professor of physics, part of the Left, an ‘unabashed Old Leftist’ as he calls himself, who said he ‘never quite understood how deconstruction was supposed to help the working class.’ [5]

He produced a parody ‘brimming with absurdities and blatant non sequiturs’ and submitted it to the prominent American cultural studies journal, Social Text. They published it, their editors accepting it in all seriousness as a vindication of postmodern critiques of science and reason.

It was a special edition, in fact, dedicated to ‘rebutting the criticisms levelled at postmodernism and social constructivism.’ [6] One paragraph read, and I quote:

The pi of Euclid and the G of Newton, formerly thought to be constant and universal, are now perceived in their ineluctable historicity; and the putative observer becomes fatally de-centered, disconnected from any epistemic link to a space-time point that can no longer be defined by geometry alone. [7]

Well it was a great parody, a great bonfire of the academic vanities.

You might have seen a recent article in The Sydney Morning Herald’s Spectrum section by English scholar Helena Echlin, and its appearance sent me back to its original source in the Oxford journal, Areté. In painful detail, she outlines what postmodernism has done to literary criticism at Yale University. She talks about sentences becoming ‘baroque in their lengthiness; suffixes are added, like flourishes in music, to words considered too plain.’ The examples she gives include these:

The ode must traverse the problem of solipsism before it can approach participating in the unity which is no longer accessible. … How can we embed this discourse within more gendered parameters? … Let’s talk about the technology for the production of interiority.
Foolish thoughts demand unclear expression. It’s the only way they can get by.

Echlin shows how books are not studied any more for pleasure or for meaning. Studying literature has become producing commentaries upon commentaries. [8]

Feminist scholar Sandra Harding claims Newtown’s Principia Mathematica can be considered a ‘rape manual’. There is a demand from one author for feminist algebra, which reminds me of Hitler’s demand for German mathematics. [9] Baudrillard’s pseudo-mathematics includes from one of his works this sentence:

Our complex, metastatic, viral systems, condemned to the exponential dimension alone (be that of exponential stability or instability), to eccentricity and indefinite fractal scissiparity, can no longer come to an end. Condemned to an intense metabolism, to an intense internal metastatis, they become exhausted within themselves and no longer have any destination, any end, any otherness, any fatality. [10]

Some school and university texts in the United States claim that ancient Africans invented aeronautics and understood quantum physics and gravitational theory. [11

And there’s more. Derrida’s Of Grammatology says:

The “unmotivatedness” of the sign requires a synthesis in which the completely other is announced as such without any simplicity, any identity, any resemblance or continuity-within what is not it. Is announced as such: there we have all history, from what metaphysics has defined as “non-living” up to “consciousness”, passing through all levels of animal organisation. [12]

I think this must lead us back to George Orwell and his plea for simple, clear statements and his linking of clear thinking and clear expression. Orwell said that when someone presents an idea unclearly it’s because they’ve probably got some sinister intent, or at the very least they’re unclear about what they’re thinking. From that great essay, ‘Politics and the English Language’ you might recall his argument:

The concrete melts into the abstract and no one seems to be able to think of turns of speech that are not hackneyed. … The great enemy of language is insincerity. … [The English language] becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts. [13]

Orwell links unclear expression with foolish thoughts. Foolish thoughts demand unclear expression. It’s the only way they can get by. He urges clear language and the clear thinking that goes with it.

Among other things in his essay he says:

  1. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
  2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
  3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
  4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
  5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
  6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

These rules sound elementary, and so they are, but they demand a deep change of attitude in anyone who has grown used to writing in the style now fashionable.

George Orwell displays the virtue of the humanities. The great Orwell, who wanted a socialist Britain in the 1930s; who went and fought for the workers at the frontline in the Spanish Civil War; who saw through the lies of the Marxist-Leninists then being peddled; who exposed uncannily what was happening in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union so that dissenters reading smuggled copies of 1984 or Animal Farm didn’t know how he could get it so right never having been in their lands.

His work displays for us the virtue of the humanities and the case for the humanities, showing us as much as can be seen of the universe, not through a glass darkly but looking through a ‘clear pane of glass’.


1. Timothy Garton Ash, ‘Orwell in 1998’ (review of The Complete Works of George Orwell edited by Peter Davison), The New York Review of Books, October 22, 1998 [Back]

2. National Board of Employment, Education and Training, ‘Knowing Ourselves and Others: The Humanities in Australia in the 21st Century’ Volume 1, April 1998 [Back]

3. Berlin I, The Crooked Timber of Humanity, Fontana, London, 1991, p 127 [Back]

4. Ferry and Renaut, French Philosophy of the Sixties: An Essay on Antihumanism, University of Massachusetts Press, 1990, p 14 [Back]

5. Sokal, ‘Transgressing the Boundaries: An Afterword’ in Sokal and Bricmont, p 249 [Back]

6. Sokal and Bricmont, Intellectual Impostures, Profile Books, London, 1998, pgs 1–2 [Back]

7. ‘Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity’, originally published in Social Text 46/47 (Spring/Summer 1996), Duke University Press, cited in Sokal and Bricmont, p 210 [Back]

8. Echlin H, ‘Letter from Yale’, Areté (Issue 3, Autumn 2000, Oxford), p 1 [Back]

9. Keith Windschuttle’s foreword to Stove D, Anything Goes, Macleay Press, Sydney, 1998, p 13 [Back]

10. Sokal A and Bricmont J, Intellectual Impostures, Profile Books, London, 1998, p 25 and p 142 [Back]

11. Keith Windschuttle’s foreword to Stove D, Anything Goes, Macleay Press, Sydney, 1998, p 13 [Back]

12. Derrida J, Of Grammatology, from chapter two—Linguistics and Grammatology [Back]

13. ‘Politics and the English Language’ (1946), in Orwell G, Inside the Whale and Other Essays, Penguin, 1957 (re-printed 1975) [Back]

The Hon. Robert John Carr, M.P. is Premier of NSW, Minister for the Arts and Minister for Citizenship. This is the transcript of a speech by Premier Carr in the Sesquicentenary Distinguished Visitor Series at The University of Sydney on 7 March 2001